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Batman: Bride of the Demon (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises this week, today we’ll be reviewing the complete “Demon” trilogy, exploring the relationship between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul.

Bride of the Demon is generally agreed to be the weakest of the Demon trilogy. Written by Mike W. Barr, with artwork from Tom and Eva Grindberg, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t the most conventional story in the set. While Son of the Demon and Birth of the Demon both justified their one-shot graphic novel status by telling fairly unique Batman stories, Bride of the Demon feels like an adventure that could have been written during Barr’s run on Detective Comics. That’s not to say that it isn’t an entertaining story, or that it doesn’t fit within the context of the trilogy, just that it feels relatively straight-forward and a tiny bit mundane.

Things are heating up…

It seems that Barr is setting up this adventure as the final confrontation between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul. After all, Son of the Demon was dripping with subtext suggesting that eventually Batman or Ra’s Al Ghul would be forced to end their cordial rivalry. Here, Ra’s Al Ghul states the principle in no uncertain terms. “One of us will kill the other, given time.” It seems that Ra’s is motivated towards an endgame in Bride of the Demon, stating, “The victim will not be me.”

There is, as with Son of the Demon, a sense that Ra’s is moving towards his final battle. His scientific expert, Dr. Weltmann, warns him, “I cannot guarantee the efficaciousness of the Lazarus Pit. The next time you die may–“ The sentiment, though interrupted is clear. As with Son of the Demon, Ra’s is drawn with completely white hair, as opposed to his more conventional black-top-and-white sides. It seems that Ra’s is getting old and, in his old age, he has abandoned the dream of converting Batman to his cause. That doesn’t mean there’s any less respect. “The Detective should have someone to keep his memory alive,”Ra’s tells Alfred and Tim, sparing their lives. It merely means that Ra’s realises that he doesn’t have time to play a long game anymore.

A Demon in the bedroom…

“You may know that I am initiating plans to obtain an heir should this attempt to restore order to this globe be my last,” Ra’s warns Dr. Weltmann, and it seems that Ra’s is indeed coming to terms with his own morality, after years of operating as something close to an immortal. It’s a fascinating idea, and Ra’s decision to take a bride (and attempt to father a son) seems to confirm that he has accepted the idea of Bruce succeeding him as nothing but an idle dream.

It’s a nice character arc from Son of the Demon, and I have to admit I think that Barr writes Ra’s Al Ghul much better here. Even Ra’s grand evil plan to destroy humanity and heal the planet seems like a desperate last-minute attempt to somehow validate centuries of failure – to redeem himself one last time before he leaves this world. I really like that unspoken assumption, and I think it’s one of the stronger aspect of Bride of the Demon.

Swinging by…

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have as much weight as it should, because we know that Ra’s won’t die, just like any other major character won’t die. Barr concedes this fact by giving Ra’s an off-panel implied death towards the end of the story, but I can’t help but think a more explicit final sequence with Ra’s would have ended the story in a much stronger note. Of course, Ra’s wouldn’t actually stay dead, but the story as a whole would be the better for it.

This just feels like any other “final confrontation” story featuring a Batman villain, whether it’s reconstructing Harvey Dent’s face or curing the Riddler’s psychosis – it is robbed of resonance because we know Ra’s won’t actually disappear from the Batman books. Like I said above, this could be a story told in Batman or Detective Comics. While the other two parts of the series distinguish themselves from the bulk of stories featuring Ra’s Al Ghul, this one is only really special in the context of the trilogy.

The devil you know…

It’s a shame, because there are some clever ideas contained in this most conventional of Batman stories. The story is populated with absent mothers, itself a fairly potent commentary on the Batman mythos. (After all, it seems that most Batman origins focus on Thomas at the expense of Martha – save, perhaps, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?) There’s Batman and Tim, without a strong female presence to help form a nuclear family unit. There’s Talia and Ra’s without a mother, despite Ra’s attempts to find a substitute. Even Dr. Carmody is motivated by a need to compensate for the absence of a mother for his son. “Everything I do is to make life better for you,” he tells his son, “to give you the life and the world your mother wanted for you.”

This creates an interesting conflict within the Batman mythos, and I think that it’s one of the smarter and more subversive aspects of Barr’s story. Here, we’re presented with Batman as a very clear father substitute to Robin. It doesn’t matter that Tim Drake’s father might be alive, Bruce is concerned about the boy’s safety, fulfilling the role of a parent – playing into Batman’s desires as articulated in Son of the Demon. “The boy’s got spunk… and brains… but unless there’s a good reason… the only life I’ll be endangering will be my own!” Batman thinks at one point. Later on, when Tim intervenes during Ra’s siege of the Batcave, Batman is very much the stern concerned father-figure. “Get down here! It’s too dangerous!”

Batman won’t cave to intruders…

This is, of course, just the logical development of the Batman and Robin relationship, but Barr raises a very potent point about Batman and Robin. If Batman really cared about Robin, he wouldn’t risk the kid’s life night-in and night-out just to further his own war on crime. This version of Batman feels like a more mature and reflective iteration of the character, and one perhaps quite divorced from his regular incarnation – while developing along lines established in Son of the Demon. I wonder if this version of Batman would ever be truly comfortable with his surrogate son playing the role of Robin. He suggests Tim might do it when he’s ready, but I suspect he’d still be reluctant.

It’s not all this interesting though. I still think Barr’s writing is a little clunky in places, particularly when he tries to shoehorn in “very special” messages into the work – this time about the environment. There’s a way to do it that doesn’t feel like he’s giving the audience a lecture, but this really isn’t it. “Man!” Tim exclaims in one of the story’s clunkier moments. “And I thought the Penguin was a menace!”And, of course, that lecture inevitably becomes important towards the end of the adventure, motivating Ra’s to action.

Where does he get these wonderful toys…?

There’s also no denying that Tom and Eva Grindberg are probably the weakest artists to work on the Demon trilogy. It’s not that their work is bad – it’s pretty good, and it handles movement very well – just that Son of the Demon and Birth of the Demon were handled by artists so far above their caliber. That said, the story does feature some nice set pieces. I love, for example, Ra’s attack on the Batcave in the middle of the novel, and I think that’s actually work quite well if it were ever adapted to live action. I also like Batman’s escape from Ra’s death trap. That’s why the best way to kill Batman is simply to shoot him in the head, if you ask me. Or Brian Bolland.

Bride of the Demon isn’t nearly as weak as its reputation suggests. Indeed, it has quite a bit going for it. However, it suffers from being a fairly conventional and straight-forward Batman narrative at its core, beneath the occasional clever insight and interesting plot dynamic. Still, it works very well in context, and I’d actually be perfectly fine with it as the last ever Ra’s Al Ghul story. Of course, that won’t ever happen, but it’s not a bad idea.

You might enjoy our reviews of the other books in the Batman “Demon” trilogy:

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